A few days ago I watched a talk which explained why attempts to compare the worship of the early church with the worship of the COVID 19 church are misguided.
As I have been mulling things over over on my daily walk the thought that has been uppermost in my mind is that I am not really that bothered in making such direct comparisons between the COVID Church and the early church, or indeed the church of any era. Such direct comparison, even when the motive behind the comparison is honourable, is bound to be wide of the mark.
I do, of course, think that it is important to understand the church of bygone eras. I also think that it is important to receive the good gifts that have been bequeathed to the contemporary church and to cherish them, whilst at the same time jettisoning the dubious beliefs and practices of ages gone. For me this is what it means to be a traditionalist.
The reason why I am non too bothered with direct comparisons is simply this: the eschatological vocation of the church is to preach the gospel afresh in every era. We are the church of the COVID era, so our challenge, is to preach the gospel afresh, through word and deed, in the here and now. Yesterday has much to teach us, and tomorrow’s challenges will be different, but our concern is the here and now, for as Scripture informs us ‘each day has enough trouble of its own,’ (Matthew 6, 34).
One of the good gifts that has been given, handed down, to the Contemporary or COVID Church is liturgy, or language of the church. One of my hopes is that through the experience of being the church dispersed a renewed understanding of the richness, importance, and mystery of liturgy will arise.
Liturgy, put simply, is a means, perhaps the means, through which the catholicity of the church is celebrated. Liturgy is the language that binds us together and draws us day-by-day, week-by-week, into community, even when we are dispersed. Liturgy is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, (maybe even one of the tongues) to the church. And yet sometimes we forget, or maybe simply take for granted, the power and authority of our common liturgy? Maybe, because we prize the cerebral (preaching), the appreciative (music and visuals), and the individualistic (expository forms) we have become immunised to the common, communal and vernacular (liturgy)?
In Rev’d Peter Antony’s film the importance of gathering together as community in the early church was, in my view, rightly stressed. Place and buildings remain important and we should lament the fact that we are not able to gather, in person, together, to worship. But, does the fact that we are now worshipping from our homes mean that we are being encouraged to worship (as the films suggests) as individuals? I don’t think it does.
I think what we are being invited to do is to worship in community, as the church-dispersed. The reason I think, and more importantly, believe this is because the tradition has handed on to us, ‘common prayer’ and ‘common worship.’
The great prayers of the church, in fact the entirety of the language of the church belong to no-one and everyone, for as George Lathrop and George Guiver insisted the the language of the church is plural (Our Father, We Believe, That We Might etc, etc). If this is true, private worship makes no sense even when we are geographically dispersed and isolated. Whenever we pray and whenever we worship we are together, even when we are apart. This is the great and catholic paradox of liturgy.
The communal property of liturgy was explicitly stressed by some of the great liturgists of the Twentieth Century including the Benedictine Catholic Odo Casel, the equally Benedictine Anglican George Guiver, the Orthodox Alexander Schmemann, but perhaps it was the Methodist Don Saliers who most powerfully argued for liturgy as the language that binds community together even when the community is dispersed:
‘Liturgy is an intentionally gathered community in mindful dialogue with God’s self-communication…….liturgy is something prayed and enacted, a common art of the people in which the community brings the depths of emotion of our lives to the ethos of God.’
We are the COVID Church, we are the Church-Dispersed and we are the Church that is mandated to proclaim the gospel afresh in and for this generation and in doing so one of the ways we can be renewed, strengthened and emboldened is through a renewed appreciation of our common language; the liturgy in other words.